Although the little kite
about the ABC taking advertising was shot down with deadly accuracy
this morning by the spokesman for Australia’s TV proprietors, Mr John
Howard, it should still be floating.

The common argument
against running advertising on the ABC is that it would threaten the
national broadcaster’s independence. In fact, carrying advertising
would be the single biggest step the ABC could take to protect its independence.

The
ABC is under constant threat from its owners, the federal government,
which controls its budget and hates its agenda. This has been the case
for several decades, through governments of different political hues.
And the pressure on ABC funding will only grow as the media becomes
more diffuse and the traditional role of a national broadcaster becomes
harder to justify.

Carrying advertising would generate significant revenues for the ABC –
hundreds of millions of dollars once it became an established medium
for reaching a desirable audience who largely don’t watch commercial
television. Those revenues could be ploughed back into ABC programming
– strengthening areas like local drama – and would deflect the damage
caused by inevitable government budget cuts.

The crucial issue would be “church and state” – ensuring that
advertising and editorial comment were kept in entirely separate
compartments that could never infect each other – just like it is
at other reputable commercial media organisations, like The New York Times or The Guardian. This would have to be enshrined in the ABC charter and would be inviolate.

Of
course advertising on the ABC won’t happen. Not because ordinary people,
or even politicians, believe it is wrong for ethical reasons, but
because a far more powerful three-member group believe it is wrong for
commercial reasons. Hundreds of millions of reasons.

Peter Fray

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